Special Thanks To:
One of my favorite movies of all times is One Night On Earth. It’s a cinematic dream of just how connected we are as a species and all the synchronicity that life flings at us. The movie is a collection of five stories involving cab drivers in five different cities from around the world. Which is a causal or persuasive link to my nocturnal behavior of getting out of bed, grabbing my camera and climb behind the steering wheel of my KIA and drive. I actually like driving late at night. When I say late, I don’t mean 10 PM, or even midnight – I mean like the witching hours from 2 am to sunrise. There is no other time of day where you can see typically the most congested street completely empty. It’s like being teleported as the last man on earth. A bat maneuvering in the dark, it uses a process called echolocation. Echolocation refers to the process of using echoes and sound waves to navigate around objects. For my excursion into the great Basin of Los Angeles, I too use echolocation in the form of music to tap into the auditory cortex of my brain and beyond to the “seat of the soul” the pineal gland. The music dictates when I should proceed straight ahead or turn left or right. Tonight’s soundtrack is “A Perfect Place” a Morricone-esque soundtrack by Mike Patton. Ready set go! Among the endless metaphors for life, a road is perhaps one of the best. There’s times for speed, times for caution and times to stop. Ahead, the lights of a psychic storefront beckon me to take time to stop and enjoy the cold Pink’s hotdog I picked up earlier. This is A Perfect Place for my One Night On Earth.
Mary McWhorter-Banks 1925 – 2020
Uh-will the wind ever remember the names it has blow in the past?
And with this crutch, its old age
And its wisdom it whispers, “No, this will be the last” – Jimi Hendrix
Mary is 94 years old with severe dementia, and resides in a hospice facility in Oklahoma. And she’s my mom. On November 6th, 2020 mom passed away from complications of Covid-19. This is the last moments I spent with mom.
Mom sits silently in her wheelchair vacantly staring at the bear wall above her bed. On occasion she will touch her locket that hangs around her neck. I know she feels like leaving, but she can’t go. Mom doesn’t know that this is her tomorrow. There are only fleeting moments when the depths of her dementia recedes, and she sees me sitting on her bed.
“What are you doing here?” She asks.
As quickly as I can answer. Mom vanishes back into the dark corridors of her mind. She’s gone, only to be replaced with an empty stare to the white wall above her bed. My love for the woman who gave me life isn’t always available, but somewhere in moms mind I can only hope she knows that I have not abandoned her.
I open my computer and start to play music to fill the void of silence in her room. Out of the corner of my sight, moms leg starts to gently move, I slowly turn my head so as not to detract from moms gaze. Following her leg down to the tip of her fuzzy pink slipper. Mom begins to tap the metal footrest of her wheelchair. Mom smiles, and the paleness of her cheeks disappears and is replaced with a rosy pink color hue. I wonder, what if I play music from her youth.
Playing a mix of Frank Sinatra songs, the room fills with big band music with “Ol’ Blue Eyes” at the mic.
“ I always liked him” she says somewhat abruptly.
“Mom were you a bobby-soxer?”
There is a pause as mom searches her past, “Yes.”
She looks over at me after answering.
“Who are you?” she ask
“Mom, I’m your historian.”
A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterdays life
Somewhere a queen is weeping
Somewhere a king has no wife
And the wind, it cries Mary – Jimi Hendrix
Les McCann first gained some fame in 1956 when he won a talent contest in the Navy as a singer that resulted in an appearance on television on The Ed Sullivan Show . McCann reached the peak of his career in 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival, recording “Compared to What” with saxophonist Eddie Harris. After the success of Swiss Movement album, McCann — primarily a piano player — began to emphasize his rough-hewn vocals more. He became an innovator in the soul jazz style, merging jazz with funk, soul and world rhythms. He was also among the first jazz musicians to include electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer in his music. In 1971 McCann and Harris were part of a touring group of soul, R&B, and rock performers which included Wilson Pickett,The Staple Singers, Santan and Ike & Tina Turner. McCann is also credited in discovering Roberta Flack and obtained an audition which resulted in a recording contract for Ms. Flack with Atlantic Records.
In the mid 90’s McCann suffered a stroke that weakened his keyboard playing but his powerful singing kept him on the road. McCann’s comeback was solidified in 2002’s with “Pump It Up” a guest-heavy celebration of funk and jazz released on ESC Records. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Swiss Movement album, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson brought veteran McCann and a young trio of musicians to the KC Jazz Club for Swiss Movement Revisited.
Jackson is used to working with legends he cut his musical teeth with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1980s. He went on to record with such greats as the late Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, Cedar Walton and Stanley Turrentine. Jackson leads his own group, and his latest release (Once Upon a Melody) hit No. 1 on the jazz radio charts.
In a 2009 Kennedy Center performance the interaction between Jackson, his young talented musicians and the old lion at the keyboard, Les McCann, reminded the audience that the old lion can still roar with heart.
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
and the clowns have all gone to bed,
you can hear happiness staggering on down the street,
footprints dress in red.
And the wind whispers Mary.
Excerpt from Cue The Camels, Chapter Eight, Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark
We waited another half an hour after the Turkish patrol had disappeared out of sight before we hauled ass off the apron of Mt. Ararat and on to flat ground. My knees were shot and my feet were thrashed. We crossed numerous gullies, sliding down their drops then trudging back up their inclines, which rapidly depleted our remaining energy reserves.
Stumbling forward, my boots scraped against the rolling rocks as I repeatedly stabbed with the ski poles for an opening between the rocks to right myself. The flare must have burned out because it became dark again. I faltered a number of times but kept an eye on my fellow climbers Cronuck and Stublich and watched them move at a steady pace towards the faint yellow and white lights of Doğubayazıt on the horizon – which I affectionately call Dog Biscuit
My feet felt warm and soggy which was a sure sign of blood.
It was at this point – stemming from many things, such as dehydration and sheer exhaustion – that I fell into mild delirium and David Byrnes of Talking Heads became my chaperones.
‘And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?’
‘You know, David, you’re holding me hostage with that broken record. I mean, I can appreciate your words but after a while it gets a little old. Know what I mean?’
I didn’t get a straight answer from David; instead, he gave me his advice. ‘The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now…’
At that moment, a second flare burst in the night sky. It was a couple of seconds later that we heard the low boom of the flare gun, which meant there was a good distance between us and the Turkish military. I made it to the edge of the stone field; Cornuke and Stublich stopped long enough to ask me if I was okay. My lips were cracked, my tongue was swollen and all my saliva had evaporated. I could only answer with a nod and a whisper: ‘I’m okay.’
Ahead, I could hear Dick slapping the iridium satellite phone repeatedly, trying to get enough charge out of the dead battery to make a call to Micah, our Kurdish fixer, so that he could meet us at the predetermined rendezvous point.
George grumbled. ‘This is fucking stupid. Let’s go to the main highway and catch a ride to town.’
Dick stopped smacking the sat-phone and directed all his attention towards George. ‘Shut the fuck up, George. The Turkish military use that road all the time. What do you think they’ll assume if they come across us on that highway with all our gear?’
George didn’t listen and relentlessly argued his point as the sound of the dogs’ howls grew louder. There was a gunshot in the distance followed by the hiss of another parachute flare. That was all the motivation we needed; the five of us turned and hauled ourselves across the plain. David followed nearby. ‘We make a pretty good team. Don’t get exhausted; I’ll do some driving. You ought to get some sleep.’
‘You know, David, it must be Mercury in retrograde with all the hurdles we’ve had to clear,’ I muttered.
There was no response.
We’d been tramping about in the darkness for hours and we were spent, physically and emotionally. We walked on autopilot, using the light of Dog Biscuit as our beacon.
‘You know, David, I could’ve stayed in L.A. picking up work shooting a mindless sitcom and watching a celebrity with two soft, protruding organs give us the local weather report. I could have, but I wouldn’t have had this wonderful field trip to remember. Know what I mean?’
David paused then caught up with me. ‘You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here? You may ask yourself: where does that highway lead to? You may ask yourself: am I right; am I wrong? You may say to yourself: my God, what have I done?’
Like a still image, a song can transport you back to a moment in time that has been forgotten. For instance, during the wild fires of Southern California in 2009 I had a very real flashback when Shakira’s song; “Whenever, Wherever” blared out from the radio while driving on the Glendale Freeway. The smell of a burning hillside mixed with fumes of diesel, the thump, thump, thumping of the helicopters overhead transported me immediately back to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Music is sort of a synthetic acid, which enhances flashbacks of one’s own memories. Scans of the brain show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active. Which may explain why I have overcome a learning disability with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
Strange as it may seem, when I listen to music as I am doing right now, it forces me to focus and keeps my ADD at bay. Growing up, my parents could never understand why I would play music when reading or studying. They would just shout at me to turn the record player or radio off. But, instinctively I need this learning aid to focus .. go figure! Music helps me concentrate. Once I sit down, play my music I fall into a Zen like zone and my brain slows down to a crawl so that I can concentrate. If it were not for music and the computer I would probably be selling used furniture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But when you combine music and dance it can bring back the passionate fire of our youth and the peacefulness of our softer and more graceful years – maybe they are never expressed more fully than through a song and a slow dance. It is the medium of music and dance that is tangible to our soul and expresses to the world who we truly are and who we can be. The best part of music for me, is when my arms are wrapped around a woman and I can feel the beat of her heart to the tempo of the music. We become lost, yet together in sync as the lyric’s nourish our souls. Unaware of time and space we dance losing isolation to become a bridge of kindred spirits as a karmic connection begins to blossom between us……….would you like to dance? Hit it Bobby.
BOBBY CALDWELL – What You Won’t Do For Love (1979)
It’s not that I’m a snob about music but any world traveler will tell you that one of the most essential items in your rucksack is your music. My choice of tunes has become the soundtrack for many of my journeys, often saving my sanity. I can attest that there is nothing better then listening to your iPod on a transatlantic flight, it evokes a wonderful state of being that takes you away from the crying babies and exasperated mothers. Music has protected me from exasperation when Egyptian wedding parties have still been going strong at two o’clock in the morning, as well as helping me pass days (not hours) while once waiting for a flight out of Kabul.
For me, Justin Bieber’s mindless pop just doesn’t lend itself to the experience of tearing across sun-bleached sands in the Sahara desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’, however, does a terrific job and always sets the mood. I have collected CDs from souks, bazaars, back alley kiosks and hotel lobbies; I’d like to think that, as a result, my taste in music is eclectic. You’ll find Middle Eastern dance, Bollywood, Japanese pop, electronica, soul, rock, tango and Neapolitan ballads on my iPod.
Like a still image, a song can transport you back to a moment in time that has been forgotten: a cognitive process that scientists have tried to understand for a long time. For instance, during the wild fires of southern California in 2009 I had a very real flashback when Shakira’s song ‘Whenever, Wherever’ blared out from the radio while I was driving along the Glendale freeway. Combined with the sight of the burning hillside, the fumes of diesel and the ‘thump, thump, thumping’ of the helicopters overhead I was immediately transported back to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
I see music as a synthetic acid that enhances flashbacks of our memories. Scans of the brain have shown that when people listen to music, virtually every neuron becomes more active, which may explain how I’ve overcome a learning disability, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Music forces me to focus, which keeps my ADD at bay. Growing up, my parents could never understand why I would play music when reading or studying; they’d just shout at me to turn the record player or radio off.
Once I sit down and play my music I fall into a Zen-like state; my brain slows down to a crawl so that I can concentrate. If it were not for music I would probably be selling used furniture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In all societies – with the exception of just one, that I know of: the Taliban – music’s primary function is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together through singing and dancing, should their culture allow. Humans have been making music since those first cavemen’s campfires.
In Kabul, Afghanistan, I spent an afternoon eating lunch that had been cooked on the sidewalk, in front of a carpet store on Chicken Street. The owner and his son stayed and had lunch with me so that they could practice their English. When Kabul was under Taliban control, paper bags, white socks, kite-flying and music were forbidden. This was serious oppression; for instance, possession of a paper bag constituted the death penalty. If they viewed that so severely, imagine what they’d have done if a flash mob broke out to Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ – the Taliban would have nuked all of Chicken Street.
To celebrate my host’s and his son’s newfound freedom we played ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain on his chrome-trimmed ghetto blaster that he’d kept hidden from the Taliban. It must have been very amusing for the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops to see a couple of Afghans and one big white guy jumping to the beat of the music in front of the old carpet store. To this day, when I hear ‘Jump Around’ I can smell the pilaf cooking, feel the heat of the day and, in my mind’s eye, see the physical expression of freedom on the owner’s face and that of his son’s, as they danced with sheer joy.
Prior to a shoot in Egypt I listened to singer Amr Diab which gave me some insight into modern Egyptians’ taste and a clever way to win over friends. I phonetically learned Amr Diab’s hit ‘Nour El Ain – Habiby’. Arabic was not a language I grasped quickly; I know a few phrases like ‘tiizak hamra’: ‘Your ass is red’ (i.e. like a monkey’s); or ‘moxxu gazma’: ‘His mind is (as low and dirty as) a shoe’, a bitter insult. Still, I persevered and mimicked ‘Habiby’ before leaving the States.
Once we landed in Cairo we immediately started shooting. On a production like that there’s not much time to build a friendly relationship with your Egyptian fixer, crew members or driver. Despite the language barrier, we were all very courteous to each other and worked together really well. On day four of the assignment, we were travelling from Cairo to Giza by van; Abubak, our driver, pulled a cassette tape from a black box that he was very protective of, because it contained his personal collection of music. I was in the back of the van as the Egyptian crew sat up front, smoking Cleopatra cigarettes. The intro began to ring out and I felt butterflies in my stomach. Amr Diab sang the first lyric. I stood-up (as much as I could in the van) and belted out, ‘Habibi ya nour el-ain, ya sakin khayali, a’ashek bakali sneen wala ghayrak bibali (translation: My darling, you are the glow in my eyes, you live in my imagination, I adored you for years, no one else is in my mind). I then sang the chorus: ‘Habibi, Habibi, Habibi ya nour el-ain’ (My darling, my darling, my darling glow in my eyes).
I swear to God, one of the crew member’s cigarette dropped out of his mouth, and I could also see in the rear view mirror Abubak’s eyes widen – he nearly rear-ended the Cairo taxi in front. There was a moment of shocked silence – this big white guy from California was singing one of their most popular songs. They began to clap in unison to the beat of the song; one by one they stood up and held their hands high, swaying their hips, as we all sang ‘Habibi, Habibi’. The remaining seven days of our shoot were flawless. Every evening we came together and smoked shisha, played dominos and learned curse words in each other’s language. At the end of the shoot, and before checking in for the flight back to the States, we all stood in the Cairo International Airport parking lot to say our goodbyes and so I could pass out their payment and traditional bonuses. I noticed Abubak walk from the cab of his van with something wrapped in newspaper. He presented me with a gift: my very own hookah and shisha. Surrounded by the Egyptian crew, tears filled my eyes as I accepted their gracious offering. We’d become as close as brothers through our common love of music. As we said our goodbyes I couldn’t hold it in any longer and I openly sobbed as I hugged each of the big, burly, bearded men. They, too, began to weep as I walked away and boarded my flight.
I missed out on securing a bulkhead seat in coach and found myself wedged in a middle seat at the back of the plane. The seat had only enough space for a tiny derriere, which I don’t have – I swear, my toilet seat back home in Burbank was bigger. My legs were cramped up against the gray folding tray hanging from the seat in-front of me that refused to stay up, which seems to happen on every overseas flight I take. I should file a report to Amnesty International that United Airlines commits acts of torture by kneecapping captive consumers.
The in-flight movie was one I’d seen before: a chick movie, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. It was time to escape into my world. I settled myself as much as I could by placing a pillow between my knees and the seat in-front of me. With my earplugs in and my iPod tuned to my favorite artist, Natacha Atlas, I opened a dog-eared page of my book: The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. Having lived in the Sonoran desert of the American southwest, and after working in the Sahara desert, I have an affinity with space, sand and time. As an anthropologist, Castaneda wrote that Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian and shaman, was an expert in the cultivation and use of various psychotropic plants, (specifically, magic mushrooms, angel’s trumpet and peyote) all found in the Mexican deserts. While under their influence, Castaneda reached a transcendental state. At cruising altitude, with the monotone whine of the jet engines and the murmurs of fellow passengers, Natacha’s song, ‘Ya Weledy (My Child)’ began and I hoped to gain similar escapism. The music then turned to an Arab symphony; in my mind a curtain rose and I played back the last few days with my Egyptian friends as Natacha sung: ‘Don’t forget your friends, don’t forget your friends. And those who think of you, and those who think of you, you don’t know what is in front of you. Don’t stray from the path.’
My own hypnotic drug – my music – was starting to kick in and I felt serenity, wedged inside my seat miles from the ground, incarcerated in a metal box. The track changed to Anthony Newley’s ‘What kind of fool am I?’ and I had a vivid flashback of my friend, Ya’akov, whom I worked with in Israel as we searched for a money shot….
The passenger window next to me was tinted yellow from years of exposure to cigarette smoke. Running down the middle of the window was a vertical crack in the shape of lightning; it was stuck halfway which allowed a blast of hot air to penetrate the cab, bringing with it familiar smells of diesel and earth. As the terrain charged by, I idly wondered which biblical figures had walked this ground, and which battles from the Old Testament had been fought there. But it was difficult to ponder such searching questions when my Israeli driver, Ya’akov’s, radio-cassette player screamed ‘What kind of fool am I?’
With both hands on the wheel, and an ever-present Marlboro dangling from his lips, Ya’akov belted out the tune, over-enunciating each lyric. A man of small stature, Ya’akov was built like a brick house, with hands like baseball gloves and eyes blue and clear.
For some, pop music is considered to be the demise of civilization but for Ya’akov, it was a blessing. Ya’akov embraced western culture by teaching himself English from the Billboard’s Hot 100 music chart – it was the reason why he strained so hard to pronounce each lyric. Although his accent was definitely Israeli, it switched to a bad Elvis impersonation when he cursed aloud, such as when the undercarriage of his truck scraped the limestone rocks in the road. He also had difficulty with slang, such as when we referred to the ‘walkie talkies’ we used on location. He called them ‘okie dokies’. So used to his description, I still find myself calling them ‘okie dokies’ even now.
Ya’akov relayed his military service history during our trip. He was a veteran of the Six-Day War and witnessed Israel’s history from the front lines. He added that the Beatles released ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ only days before the battle. He especially liked ‘When I’m 64’.
It was May 1967 when the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, expelled the United Nations’ Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula, including the Suez Canal. Egypt subsequently blockaded Israel’s southern ports of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba, preventing shipments of Israel’s oil imports. Nasser also had a strategic alliance with Jordan and Syria, with additional military support from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Egypt had amassed a thousand tanks and nearly a hundred-thousand soldiers on the Israeli border. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt. Ariel Sharon commanded the most powerful armored division on the Sinai front, which Ya’akov’s unit was part of. Ya’akov, a machine-gunner, fought in that battle, but not before his unit was held back due to landmines and Egyptian tanks. I can only imagine that while he waited for the orders to move out, Ya’akov was drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and hoping to make it to 64.
General Sharon broke away from his plan of attack and ordered his troops to follow a camel path through the sand dunes, thus avoiding thousands of landmines and with the intention of surprising the Egyptians. Ya’akov was happy to have just survived the war. He now drove film crews around Israel and sold cartons of Marlboros to the Bedouins.
We were on an old dirt road, somewhere off Highway 79, near Nazareth. Ya’akov maneuvered around bombshell-size potholes; his truck, filled with our camera gear, swayed almost rhythmically to the cassette player. The goal was to find an appropriate filming location in the Israeli outback, one without power lines or any evidence of the twenty-first century. I let my driver – and serendipity – find the money shot.
The first time ‘happy chance’ occurred was when I shot a documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d traveled to the cave in Qumran where the scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. With that segment of the documentary done, and with no further obligations, I put my headphones on and succumbed to Esquivel (which is great travel music). I let fate and inevitability take us down unmarked dirt roads. Hidden away were miles of beautiful, sweeping terrain, perfect for shooting stills and B-roll for the documentary. Since that shoot it has become a ritual to wander aimlessly about our location.
True to this tradition, Ya’akov found a spot and pulled over. He got out a small backpack stove and proceeded to make us coffee. We sat on the back tailgate, smoking cigarettes and stirring our thick, black coffee.
‘Ya’akov,’ I said.
‘How about another song?’
Without blinking, Ya’akov bellowed, ‘In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey, don’t you know that I love you? In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby, don’t you know that I’ll always be true?’
As he stood in the middle of the old dirt road in the outback of Israel, Ya’akov mimicked playing a Vox organ in D-minor while belting out his tune. ‘Jesus,’ I thought, as I recognized the melody by Iron Butterfly. And then it hit me: the song came out in May of ‘68, right after the dust settled from the Six Day War – around the time Ya’akov started learning English.
As the sun set and Ya’akov rolled out the hits, there was nowhere I would rather have been. I shouted out, ‘Hey, Ya’akov…hand me your okie dokie. I’ll charge it for you.’
A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was blasting out from Mark Hufnail’s BMW stereo, fuelling our adrenalin and chest-beating machismo. During Jimi’s solos, I strummed the invisible strings of my air guitar and glanced over at Mark, catching him head-banging to the beat.
Two middle-aged white guys, reminiscing about hippie living and experimental drug days, we were now living on the highs adventure brought. Potential ‘fixes’ dangled from the grueling schedule before us to shoot three documentaries throughout Middle Egypt, along the Nile. With some security concerns, Mark and I drove from his Burbank office to the west side of Los Angeles, for one last advisory meeting with the only Muslim we knew, Attallah Shabazz.
After directing Discovery Channel’s ‘Eco-Challenge, Australia’ – Mark was the Executive Producer – we’d gained a reputation for productions in remote and hostile locations under adverse conditions. We’d delivered a five-hour adventure race on time and on budget to the Discovery Channel and now we were ready for our next big challenge. Mark’s company, MPH Entertainment, had been contracted to produce three documentaries: ‘Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King’, the ‘History of Sex’ for the History Channel, and ‘Tutankhamen, Egypt’s Boy King’ for A&E Network.
All three had to be shot simultaneously in sixteen days, to produce seven hours of programming. Before any overseas assignment, it was my responsibility to budget for and rent the cameras, audio gear, and small lighting package, as well as estimate how many cases of videotape we needed to take for the shoots. Before leaving the States my anxiety started, not from the threat of kidnapping by terrorist or being shot at, but due to the hell of red tape: the filling out of the carnet form or Merchandise Passport. A ‘carnet’ is an international customs and temporary export-import document that’s used to clear customs in foreign countries. Successful completion means you don’t incur duties and import taxes on your gear, or ‘tools of the trade’, if they’re to be re-exported within twelve months.
With ten anvil cases of gear, cross-referencing serial numbers and descriptions of each piece of gear was a tedious and daunting task. If just one serial number was off by one digit it could mean spending precious time and baksheesh (bribe money) in a foreign Customs office, sorting things out. The last thing I wanted to explain to a burly, foreign custom agent is why my boxer shorts had yellow smiley faces on them, having packed them in the equipment cases along with my other clothes.
Being a boy scout taught me to ‘be prepared’; if you know that there are no McDonald’s in the Sahara desert and little time during the day to stop and eat, you pack away enough food for an army. The most important thing to take, however, when shooting in exotic locations, is toilet tissue and baby wipes.
Having spent time in the Middle East previously, I took it upon myself to research the locations, assessing any potential risk. I was well aware of the current affairs in the Middle East and I was able to identify and assess a number of specific threats, not only to our production but also to us.
Beneath the massive limestone cliffs near Luxor is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions: the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This was the site of the Luxor Massacre; on November 17, 1997, 62 people were killed – mostly tourists – by Islamist extremists and the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest).
As we went into preproduction for the three documentaries – on February 23, 1998 – Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with three other Islamist leaders, co-signed and issued a ‘fatwa’. This called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, saying it was their duty. The declaration was made seven months prior to our scheduled departure to Egypt.
I’d also read somewhere that Osama and Zawahiri hated Americans so much that they wouldn’t even drink a Pepsi. On top of all that, there was rumored to be a bounty of $16,000 for every American’s head in Egypt. I found this a bit insulting: why couldn’t they round it out? I thought I was worth at least $20,000.
Since the Luxor Massacre, tourism had been pretty much void there. To capture or kill a western film crew like us would have been equivalent to bagging a top prize. Protocol suggested that I went through specific official channels. I presented my assessment and ‘deal memo’ to one of the producers. In my deal memo it specifically requested that MPH accepted financial responsibility to have my body shipped back to the States, should anything have happened to me.
To my surprise and shock the producer said, ‘No deal’. I can only assume that she was ignorant of current affairs and only perceived the rest of the world as a studio back-lot. Unfortunately for me, her world revolved around recreational television, celebrities and Hollywood gossip. This was a serious issue that couldn’t be handled by a mid-level producer so I gave the assessment to Mark. That is how we got to be on our way.
We were meeting Attallah Shabazz at a kosher Italian restaurant. Ms. Shabazz is the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist of the ‘60s. Mark and Attallah have worked together on several television productions and have become very good friends over the years, to the point that Mark’s daughter, Megan, refers to Ms. Shabazz as ‘Aunty Attallah’. I’d also worked with Ms. Shabazz on various television shows in the past, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted.
We walked into the restaurant. Sitting at a table alone, in the middle of the busy eaterie, we could not help but notice Ms. Shabazz immediately. Strikingly beautiful, tall, and wearing her trademark African print pillbox hat, she acknowledged our arrival with a broad smile that seemed to light up the room.
Mark set the stage to our trip, telling Attallah that we would be the first American crew to travel by vehicle through Middle Egypt in ten years, according to our fixer in Egypt. Our security was our foremost concern; we’d be two unmistakably-American white guys shooting at various locations
Attallah interrupted Mark. ‘You know, I don’t thing you have anything to worry about, traveling through Middle Egypt,’ she reassured us. ‘The Egyptian government cannot afford another massacre, it would be devastating to their economy. You will be well protected. Think of it as an adventure, don’t let the threat of a small group of extremists hold you hostage.’
We placed our orders for our meal and our conversation turned to shop talk and a bucket full of scuttlebutt. It’s traditional amongst our staff and crew to collect the best pithy quotes during production which we then use as a catchphrase during shooting when things get a little too heated. Over our kosher pasta with meatless sauce, we told Attallah that we’d collected three favorite quotes for the History Channel’s documentary, the ‘History of Sex’:
‘Does the composer actually see the show he’s composing?’
‘Regardless of their academic achievement and expertise, try not to use any male or female archeologist over forty years of age’.
But the killer quote, and my favorite when shooting ancient Egyptian statues, was: ‘You can shoot as many penises as you want, as long as they don’t move’.
We landed in Cairo around mid-afternoon. I was still a bit spaced-out from the residue of the Ambien still in my system and I gave off an odor like fermented Gouda cheese. It had taken us close to eighteen hours to get there, not including the ten hours we’d took to prep our gear before departure. In customs, with all ten anvil cases of equipment, we started the tedious process of cross-referencing the serial numbers of the gear against our carnet. A short, oval-shaped Egyptian customs official, in a blue shirt with wet stains under each arm, raised an eyebrow. There was a bead of sweat resting on the top of his pencil mustache that I couldn’t stop staring at.
The larger gray camera case he found to be empty of the Betacam camera. I was holding it in my hands after carrying it on the plane with me. Inside the case, in place of the camera, were a dozen or so boxer shorts bearing acid-yellow smiley faces, which prompted a smirk from the agent. ‘My underwear,’ I said, pointing at the shorts.
‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ the agent said.
‘Jesus, Dave, can’t you wear regular underwear, like ‘tighty-whities’?’ Mark asked.
‘I, er, have a problem with chafing. I’ve big thighs. Boxers really help with that problem.’
‘But couldn’t you just buy regular boxers?’
‘These were on sale,’ I protested, ‘besides, I’m going to throw them away after I wear them.’
Pointing at the camera case then the carnet, in broken English, the oval-shaped agent asked, ‘Where is this item, the camera?’
‘This is the camera,’ I said, holding the camera up further and pointing to it.
‘But it’s not in the box. The carnet says ‘camera and case’. I need the camera in the case.’
Standing before him, with the camera case at my feet, I pointed again to the camera I was holding. ‘This is turning into a Monty Python skit,’ I thought. ‘This is the camera,’ I repeated, ‘I carried it on the flight so that I could use the camera case to store my clothing.’
‘I understand. But I need the camera in the box.’ This time, his voice was raised.
‘Do I understand you? That if I put the camera in the box, you’ll be satisfied?’
Opening the camera case, I pulled out my boxer shorts and all the other items I’d put in there and placed the camera into its case. I smiled at the inspector who remained stony-faced. It suddenly hit me: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
In my mind I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The signs for baksheesh were simple – how had I missed them? The term ‘baksheesh’ describes tipping or, as the local authorities call it, ‘a charitable donation’. I call it ‘bribery’.
The government officials could have held the camera gear in protective custody until an ‘understanding’ was reached. Other signs of baksheesh could be: incorrect stamps in your passport or ink of the wrong color; your visa looking forged because the official emblem is smudged, usually after a government official has rubbed his thumb across the stamp, purposely smudging it. My favorite was the palm extended with a smile: simple, to the point and immediately recognizable for what it was. Baksheesh is a common practice across most of the Middle East; it’s common for western film crews to carry large sums of cash, just for these ‘unseen expenses’. Especially American film crews – it seems that we Americans have a reputation for throwing money at any problems we encounter. Good old American know-how.
Once our payment had been graciously accepted we cleared Egyptian customs. Porters loaded the gear onto a flatbed dolly and wheeled it out to the curb. By the time we’d finished loading the van we’d spent about $350.00 – and one carton of Marlboro cigarettes – in baksheesh…I mean, ‘charitable donations and tips’.
On the way to the hotel I decided to ride on the roof of the van with the cases of gear, to shoot B-roll of as we traveled from the airport to downtown Cairo. The driver of the van sped across El-Galaa Bridge that crosses the Nile and an insect the size of a ping-pong ball smacked me between the eyes, leaving little red blotches on my left cheek that looked like a target. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Our schedule was grueling and left so little opportunity for rest and recuperation that I was confused as to what day of the week it was as we rushed from the Pharaonic Village, Giza, to the Cairo Museum. Just like all shoots, we hit the ground running, apportioning no time to acclimatize. With pressure to shoot three documentaries there was no time to appreciate Egypt and its culture, it was just ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’.
For two sweltering days we’d been inside the Cairo museum shooting Paranoiac antiquities, artifacts, and ancient stone penises (but not the moving kind). Alone, and in a rare moment of quiet, I was on the second floor of the Cairo Museum framing the camera to shoot an artifact belonging to the most iconic of all Egyptian pharaohs: the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamen. The 11kg gold mask sat behind protective glass on a high pedestal and I’d found just the right angle to shoot the mask which didn’t also capture my reflection in the glass. I had King Tut all to myself as I began my work.
Then, from nowhere, hordes of tourists from Germany swarmed in, surrounding me and the exhibit. The lens of the camera blocked the tourists’ view; there was much pushing and shoving as they tried to get closer – so much so that the camera and tripod were nearly sent flying. I stepped back from the gaggle of Germans and could not believe my eyes when I noticed several wearing lederhosen. It was freaking hot – at least 28°C – with high humidity and no ventilation.
One man, in the shortest shorts I’d ever seen, started to pick up the tripod and camera to move it. ‘Sir, don’t move the camera,’ I warned.
In a thick German accent, he turned and snapped, ‘You shouldn’t be here! This is for tourists!’
‘I understand, sir. We’ve all come a long way to see King Tut. Just leave the camera alone. Okay?’
He persisted, putting his hands on the tripod. I stepped forward and removed his hand, which is when he elbowed me on my left cheek. It was bang on the place where the kamikaze insect had whacked me several days before.
‘Ouch!’ I muttered, before tensing, ready to defend my space. Sanity prevailed for just a moment as I thought about Mark, and that the last thing he needed was me being thrown out of the Cairo Museum for fighting with a tourist. Luckily, at that moment, a woman – also in leather lederhosen and thigh-high white stockings – grabbed the man’s arm and started scolding him in German. None of the other tourists seemed interested in our struggle for territory as they snapped pictures and left. Now, at least, I was alone with the king, sporting a painfully bruised cheek.
Eventually, we’d shot every stone penis in the museum – erect and non-erect. Our work was over in Cairo and now it was time for our road trip through Middle Egypt.
Attallah was right: we were escorted by seventeen Egyptian bodyguards as we traveled south along the Nile Delta to Luxor in Middle Egypt. Our caravan was made up of several vehicles, including a sky-blue armored personnel carrier complete with fifty-caliber machine gun, and a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz SUV that carried our four bodyguards. They sat in comfort, in their polyester suits and sunglasses. Except for the front windscreen, the side and rear windows were bulletproof glass, tinted almost black. In the middle of each passenger window were gun ports that looked like small, black puckered lips, ready to give any adversary a stinging kiss of death. On occasion you would see copious amount of smoke stream from the gun ports; most of the time the bodyguards sat in their SUV with the air conditioning on full blast as they played their favorite Egyptian pop music. As a result, the SUV vibrated with a ‘thump, thump, thump’. Jimi Hendrix, it was not.
In contrast, we were stuck in a white minibus, with painted hieroglyphic symbols and a giant portrait of a pharaoh on the hood. The interior seated roughly ten passengers; it would have held more but our camera gear filled the back of the coach. With our security so obviously in tow, this bus shouted ‘tourist on board!’
Driving in Egypt is not for wimps or the faint of heart, which is why I was happy to let Mohammad, our driver, take the challenge. I’d assumed we were safe outside the city of Cairo, where car horns blast continually, insults are spat and universal hand gestures given at the slightest provocation; little did I realize just how dangerous the road to Luxor was. Most roads had two lanes of tarmac, but the condition of the ground varied greatly. The scariest part was when giant trucks frequently passed other trucks already passing cars. I lost count of my ‘sphincter twinges’ during the day but they went off the scale when we drove in the dark. It was a Mad Max movie in reality; the Egyptians didn’t use their headlights until they thought they saw an oncoming vehicle – then they’d flash their lights. Thank God we were in an official convoy, with an armored personnel carrier leading the caravan.
We made numerous stops along the way, shooting B-roll to enrich our documentaries. I shot video and still photographs at each location for ‘cut-away footage’ that could be added to scripted voice-overs or expert interviews. This adds greater dimension to the storylines in our productions, an alternative to the traditional ‘talking head’ pieces. As we continued our trek to Luxor day turned to night. Suddenly, our motorcade came to a complete stop. We were near our destination of Al Minya, at a goat crossing.
I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the van. I started shooting the goat herder and his goats against the van’s headlights when four tourist police intervened. With their Uzi machine guns they hustled us back into the van.
‘Jesus! What was that all about? It’s just goats,’ said Mark.
‘Maybe someone just got his goat?’ I chuckled at my own joke.
One of the security men from our convoy came into the van, still wearing his sunglasses. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ he said. ‘A madrasa is down the road: the most radical of Islamic schools in Egypt. We believe Osama Bin Laden is inside. The goats are a way to stop people, so they can see who approaches. Just stay down.’
There was a lot of movement outside the van and raised voices. The goats still surrounded us. A second bodyguard came to the door. ‘The local authorities and the village elders fear retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists at the madrasa for hosting you Americans. We cannot stay here or in Al Minya. We have to find another place to stay the night. Please, stay down, and do not get out of the van.’
We waited, keeping a low profile as our security team herded the goats out of the way. The goat herder had disappeared. After traveling south for half an hour, our security team found an abandoned hotel outside an unnamed village. Oddly, there was a flickering light-bulb several floors up. Despite our hesitation, we had been at it for sixteen hours and we were dead tired. We carried the cameras and battery chargers up the dark, shadowy, concrete stairs that offered no handrail. I was so dazed from lack of rest that when I plugged in the charger for the camera batteries I forgot that Egypt’s electrical current was 220v. I neglected to plug in the transformer and the charger blew like an indoor firework display. As the sparks flew, I grabbed the plug and pulled it out of the socket, only to get a jolt. ‘Crap! Crap! Crap!’ I shouted.
‘Are you okay?’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. I just feel like a complete idiot.’
‘You’re tired, Dave, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve another charger,’ said Mark.
As I moved away from the socket I heard a loud crunch. Lifting my boot, I saw the largest cockroach I’d ever set eyes on. The floor of the building was concrete and it was cold; the walls looked to be peppered with bullet holes and the windows didn’t bear glass but iron rods shooting up from the windowsill.
Mark looked out. It was deadly quiet outside. ‘Hey, Dave, there are guards outside, on the ground. I think this is serious.’
The flickering light was a beacon to a frenzy of moths, unidentified flying insects, cockroaches and five-legged bugs, the like of which I’d never seen. We were too exhausted to care and slept on the floor, only to have the creepy-crawlers roam freely on and around us. ‘Mark, are you awake?’ I asked.
‘Not really. It’s difficult when you have creatures crawling on your face. Shit! One just tried to crawl up my nose! Jesus H Christ.’ Mark was now sitting up. He was pale with bags under his eyes and desperate for some sleep.
‘Hey, why don’t we use the djellaba I picked up in Cairo?’ I suggested. ‘We could wrap it around ourselves like the Shroud of Turin. We could wrap our kefflyehs around our faces too, to keep the marauders away.’
‘Great idea. Let’s do it,’ said Mark.
So, there we were: two guys from California in Middle Egypt, beneath a winking light on a concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder and draped under a makeshift shroud. Neither Mark nor I remembered much of the drive from the abandoned ‘roach’ hotel; we slept most of the way. We eventually pulled up at a deserted parking area. Before us was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which sat atop a series of colonnaded terraces, accessed via long ramps that were once graced with gardens. Built into the limestone cliff face that towered above the temple, there were three layered terraces reaching 29m high.
It was midday, and at least 40°C. Walking up the ramp in the scorching heat was going to be challenge. I drank my last bottle of hot orange Fanta, grabbed the camera and started shooting Arab workmen breaking up the limestone walkway to the temple. It seemed to me to be perfect B-roll for the documentary, but what I didn’t realize at that moment was that they were replacing the bloodstained path where the 62 people had been massacred nearly a year before.
Hot, hot, hot! The tripod legs burnt if touched; the metal of the camera was sizzling and I could feel the heat of the scorching sand through my Doc Martin boots. I took off my kefflyeh, soaking it with water and placing it over the camera, so as not to burn up the electronics. Our Egyptian crew stayed in the van with the air conditioning on and with the hood up to keep the engine cool. Our four bodyguards sat in the comfort of their Mercedes-Benz SUV, smoking and listening to music. Mark and I continued to shoot for two hours, taking breaks in the shade of the Temple’s columns. The Sahara heat was unrelenting and oppressive, though, and I gave up when the glue on my boots began to melt. Because my kefflyeh was on the camera, the back of my neck was naked to the sun. It was now horribly blistered. Back in the van, a sunburned Mark took a long drink from a Fanta he’d kept hidden.
‘You bastard!’ I said. The sun’s heat lost its grip as I stepped into the van. Mark leaned over and pulled out another warm Fanta, handing it to me. ‘Cheers, Dave. You ready to go home?’ he said.
I’d lost all reference to time. I had no idea what day it was or how long we’d been in Egypt. This often happened to us when documenting fragments of time long since gone – you lose your own place in time.
We barely made our flight back to the States and had to sacrifice taking a shower and changing into clean clothes. I wasn’t too upset; there’s something magical about carrying the sands of the Sahara in your boots with you as you arrive home.
Days later, I was back at the NBC Studios. The guests that night were David Spade and Kate Capshaw, the musical element provided by Deana Carter. I was still painfully sunburned and therefore moved slowly; I could continually smell the odor of fermented Gouda and, during rehearsals, I found a strip of bubble wrap that seemed to resemble the blisters on the back of my neck.
During lunch at the NBC Commissary I told my cousin, Hank Geving, who was also a cameraman on the show and dedicated reader of Ancient Egyptian history, about Queen Hatshepsut and her temple. She was the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, and female pioneers of our own age, such as Madonna. He listened intently, and it gave me a huge glow of satisfaction to have stood where she had, centuries before. Many people living there don’t acknowledge that there’s life outside Hollywood. How wrong they are.
Witty Metaphorical Monologue Intensifies.
“Jesus you are taking this very seriously bro… It was a joke, stop blithering about an argument we weren’t having over music. Nobody is putting you down, quit being so fragile man. Lets just remain calm and put the thesaurus brain down on the ground nice and easy like.”
“Wow.. Thank you .. you know I played your lists in the car… cheeky stuff… friends always ask .. “what’s that you’re listening to?” glad to oblige .. thanks again for your critique.. I’m a Gimini by the way .. been in bands & played all my life .. for me this is real musician’s music.” ..
“Sounds like some kind of a noir fetish man, where did you find that track at a tobacco shop ?… it’s so slow, listening to this, I couldn’t steady myself with too much scotch in the tank…. way too much smoke in my eyes bro. All I could think about was a pair of soft tits, hard balls and the alabaster stems of the wing feathers.. What is the connection man?..Is it the connections that could keeps you alive or see me dead ? You are more cagier than a Soviet info broker and sharper than a Yakuza blade.”
“Wowww man, I’m shocked with your close minded taste of my music and an attitude of a femme fatal bitch…what did you have for breakfast…a can of dog food? I wouldn’t even be tempted to playing violin at your mothers funeral… for a dollars man.”
“Dont worry man…you will die, just enjoy your music now. By the way – your heart doesnt want to die, it will fight for you and your body to the last microsecond when it will stop. Be grateful for the light that comes through your pupils, one day they will turn grey and you – you will would be gone forever and your stupid music will be forgotten.”
“Hey ! You ready for lunch ?”
“Yeah, I’m hungry, your car or mine ?”
“Where do you want to go….Tally Rand or Los Amigos?”